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Understanding grief-a personal insight

Updated: Mar 15, 2023


The official definition from the oxford dictionary - ’intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death’

My personal definition - ‘a goddam rollercoaster of shock, disbelief, guilt, sadness, questioning, what ifs, longing, missing, tears, laughter, sleepless nights and exhaustion with an on going reality that life is no longer as you knew it’.

The thing is, your personal definition will likely be different again because no matter what, grief is individual. It’s often complex, impossible to predict, hard to navigate and changes how you feel quite literally hourly in the early days of losing someone you love.

For those of you that follow me within my healthy habits community I always promise honesty and real life. Things aren’t always the shiny perfection you see on social media and that’s why this month's blog comes with more of a personal angle than usual. Hopefully sharing my recent loss along with my own understanding may help support you or a friend.

Many of you will know (because I did document some of it to raise awareness) that my Dad suffered from Alzheimer’s and had declined over the past six years. The last year was more of a nosedive, so much so that my Mum could no longer cope with the twenty four hour care. So as a family (Mum, my sisters and I) we had to make the heartbreaking decision to move Dad into full time residential care, primarily for his own safety but also for our Mum’s physical and mental wellbeing. A decision that didn’t sit comfortably with any of us, a decision that we agonised over, a decision that made us feel guilty, a decision however that our Dad would have fully supported had he been aware.

Dad had been living in the care home for three months and I was a regular visitor, often travelling down to Newcastle to visit him and take him out. I was lucky enough to spend time with him and my family before Christmas and bizarrely for the first time in ages, we had taken him to his old rugby club. We walked with him on the first fifteen pitch, him showing us where he’d scored all his tries, a memory that we will cherish forever and one that we are hugely grateful for. Because one drink into a New Year’s Eve party last December 31st, I got the call that my Dad had collapsed and died.

My body went into immediate uncontrollable gut wrenching sobbing along with pure and utter shock that this was happening. I just couldn’t get my head around it, I couldn’t comprehend the situation and I froze in the stress response, largely unable to think clearly or act. Luckily my amazing husband kicked into action on my behalf and within fifteen minutes we were in the car heading to Newcastle to be with my Mum and to see my Dad one last time.

That’s how quickly life can change, in one instant he was here and the next he wasn’t. I was at a party ready to celebrate the New Year with friends and the next minute I was in a car heading south to say a final goodbye to my Dad. I'd hugged him for the last time the week before, I was a Dad's girl, it was virtually impossible to comprehend he was gone. He was my safety, my lighthouse, my security, my calm, someone I went to for sound advice and a reassuring cuddle. In simple terms, he was my person.....and this is why my body reacted as it did, the disbelief element helping me cope, helping me function and carry on regardless because at times like these, the reality is just to hard to comprehend.

But what really surprised me, was my inability to cry after the initial news and believe me when I say, I’m a crier! I’m someone who is open with my emotions, I was expecting a torrent of non stop tears and they just didn’t come, was I in denial or was the reality too overwhelming to fully accept? I actually found it quite strange but having researched the The five stages of grief for this blog, I now understand why. The five stages of grieving were developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. It suggests we go through five distinct stages after losing a loved one which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There’s a great infographic you can visit which lays it out perfectly.

Grief doesn’t always necessarily take place in that order however, there’s certainly no time set duration for each stage and sometimes you may skip a stage or two, but mine definitely started with denial. Let me expand on each of the stages and how they showed up for me or not as the case may be. I can confirm from this experience there’s not always going to be a set correlation to a theory so expect the unexpected:

Denial - usually the first stage and helps minimise the overwhelming pain of loss. Yip I can totally identify with this one which is why my tears just didn’t come. I was trying to survive emotional pain whilst processing the reality of the loss. Hard to believe I’d seen Dad the week before and now my new reality was a life without him. There was a lot to process so denial helped slow things down to enable me to take it one step at a time, saving me from emotional overwhelm.

Anger - the second stage but not an emotion I experienced. Seemingly anger allows us an emotional outlet and may feel more socially acceptable than being scared or feeling judged for showing our true emotions. Not true for me, I never experienced the anger stage and still haven’t. But my Dad was elderly and perhaps the natural order of his death didn’t kick up this particular emotion for me so I seemed to jump this stage. However, I can see how this could be a huge part of the grieving process for some and remember there’s no right or wrong here.

Bargaining - the third stage and one that I didn’t think related to me, however, bargaining takes all forms. It can be bargaining to a greater power to bring your loved one back or making promises with yourself for a better outcome in the future. Bargaining comes from a feeling of helplessness and may give us a perceived sense of control over something that feels so out of control? It can simply be regretting some of your past interactions with your loved one which is where mine showed up. I wished I’d told my Dad how much I loved him the last time I saw him, I also regretted not spending longer with him that final visit. But I realised pretty quickly that this would not bring him back, it wouldn’t change anything and actually it was going to cause more emotional damage to me. So I consciously chose to stop thinking this way and gradually those feelings subsided, but it took focused practice and awareness not to allow myself to stay in those regrets for long.

Depression - the fourth stage and while I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced classic depression, I have definitely felt overwhelming sadness, flat in mood and energy, unfathomably exhausted and lacking in sparkle. The loss is felt more keenly because the shock has worn off and the reality is, I will never see my Dad again.

At times I feel such a massive physical ache of missing him that it actually hurts and I’m overwhelmed with tears. In those moments I try and get it all out but if it happens randomly (which it often does) then sobbing in the supermarket aisles is not always ideal? In those moments, I try and hold it then let rip when I get into the car or back behind closed doors. I’m all for showing emotion, but snot, tears and my purple post crying face is not a vision the world necessarily needs to see…..

However for those suffering with serious depression following a loss, it can be painfully isolating so be sure to get the help you need or point your family and friends in the right direction. Professional support is available, here are some useful links to share. Mind, Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health UK.

Acceptance - the final stage of grief, not that the loss is no longer felt but there’s less resistance to the loss. I understand this, Dad is gone and nothing will bring him back, denial and bargaining are no longer showing, there's just a calm feeling of accepting he’s not here. It doesn’t mean I’m not sad, the tears are never far from the surface, it doesn’t mean I skip about each day feeling brilliant, but it does bring peace. I think about him every day, I keep his memory alive by talking about him to my family and friends, I laugh at the funny memories, I reminisce and I cry when I feel like it (usually when a tune comes on that reminds me of him). It’s going to be ok, I miss him but I will be forever grateful to have had him as my Dad for so long and for us as a family to learn more about the cruel disease that is Alzheimer’s.

For those of you wanting to help family or friends who are going through the loss of a loved one, just go with your gut and ask yourself what would you need if you were in the same situation? Don't be afraid to acknowledge the passing of their loved one, say their name, talk of a happy memory you have of them, don't be scared you will cause upset. Put any feelings of awkwardness aside, death is healthy to talk about and certainly in my case, I wanted people to talk about my Dad, tell me their memories, mention his name because this brought comfort.

Fixing is what we might want to do because we can feel helpless, but sometimes the best thing we can do is just be there. To listen, to have a cuppa, to support, to show you care. Cook a meal, write a card, any token that shows you are thinking of the person grieving is massively helpful and likely appreciated. I couldn’t have got through the last few months without the amazing support of my family and friends. A huge thank you to you all from the bottom of my heart, you know who you are.

Remember, grief is individual, there is a five stage grief theory but there’s no manual, so take each day as it comes and first and foremost be kind to yourself. Thinking of anyone who finds themselves grieving the loss of a loved one, I really do understand and am sending you love and thoughts.

Antonia x

Are you suffering from low self-esteem, constantly stressed, unable to prioritise, stuck in the past, finding new challenges overwhelming, lacking in energy, struggling to manage your weight or instil new habits? I may be able to help.

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